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The Sino-Africa Strategic Partnership: The Need for Continental Approach

The Sino-Africa Strategic Partnership: The Need for Continental Approach


In recent years, China has established new approach of engagement towards the Africa continent. The resurgence of Chinese interest in Africa would appear, at first glance, to open up encouraging prospects for African countries in terms of the induced and multiplier effects of the new strategic and economic orientations of Chinese policy. Although through its financial support and contribution to the exploitation of raw materials in the African countries, China contrib­utes to their growth, the opportunity thus created is not risk-free in terms of the produc­tion and processing capacity of African countries in question.


In terms of trade, while the total Sino-African trade volume has surged  from US$166 billion in 2011 to US $210.2 billion in 2013, making China Africa’s biggest trading partner, this has mainly been in exchange of African minerals for Chinese manufactured goods. Chinese exports, therefore, weaken the local industrial fabric and overset trade channels. Even though some writers maintain that this trend is merely a reflection of the comparative advantages of each of the partners, the competitive strength of Chinese manufactured commodities as compared to that of local African products remains a real concern for policy makers in the area of industrial development. This is mainly true of textile, leather, clothing, and shoe industries of many African countries. All these situations claim a strategic positioning of Africa’s partnership with China. So, what is Africa’s best viable response to this new reality? As official source further presently indicates, China gives a particular emphasis on the social and personal aspects of economic success which seeks to re-imagine wealth and reshape consumerism in the country. Simply, the aim is to catalyze a new aspirational standard of living that is in essence sustainable for the emergence of middle income economy driven by consumers and services in China. These new progresses have implications for China’s trade ties with the Africa continent.


But, as to how African countries need to react to this Chinese shifting economic growth paradigm, there can be no doubt that African countries have not effectively engaged the Chinese, even before the model started to revolutionize. Hence, as Africans, we may take lessons on what has characterized the Sino-Africa relationships so far, and then use that as starting point to look at the future partnerships as the economy of China changes.

In fact, China’s deepening engagement with Africa has received an intense debate and vocal criticism from both western countries and Africans themselves. The first type of critique, which is continued to be highlighted by the western governments and their institutions, is termed as western-inspired criticism, and the second one consists of genuine grievances voiced by many Africans, such as policy makers, local trade unions, local entrepreneurs, and civil society.


In economic terms, the increased presence of China in Africa has broken the western clutch of Africa-world trade. In the past, Europe and the US have always considered the continent as their areas of political and economic sphere of influence. The arrival of China has, however, meant a new competition for them, and they are not truly pleased. They are in effect getting markedly overpowered and out-competed by Chinese advent. This has led to unsubstantiated and self-serving western-inspired attacks on China’s involvement in Africa.


The policy makers in the western world, global observers, experts, and some critics have been at the forefront against China’s engagement in Africa citing rampant plunder of African raw materials and natural resources driven by narrow commercial interest of the Chinese. The allegations further include that the Chinese are unresponsive to good governance and human rights issues; supporting authoritarians in Africa; grabbing Africa’s natural resources in a new form of colonialism; not adding any value in African commodities; bringing labor from China, and engaging in an unacceptable and poor labor practices. While some of these accusations deserve attention, the motivation, history and present practices of their western sponsors make them hollow. Western countries and their investors have never encouraged value addition in Africa. They brought slavery, plundering of natural resources, colonialism, imperialism and now new colonialism to the continent. In this regard, I quote some illustrative words of Jack Straw, former British Foreign Secretary, from The Daily Telegraph: “most of what China has been doing in Africa today is what we did in Africa 150 years ago”.  At the same time, on her a five-day Africa tour in 2011, Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, has made similar allegation in a television interview in Lusaka by saying “we do not want to see a new colonialism in Africa”. Along with this criticism, China’s hunt for Africa’s resources is not based on fair and moral approaches, but is dependent on exploitation and deepening African dependency on China. 

What’s more, the double standard on governance matter is striking. When western governments and their Multinational Corporations want to trade and invest, they do not bring the issues of democracy, good governance or human right to the table for discussion as pre-conditions. Illuminating cases include trade and investment ties with Kuwait, Egypt, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) under Mobutu, South Africa under Apartheid era, Iran under Shah, and Iraq under Saddam. Western countries establish friendly trading ties with China, and yet China is undoubtedly not a western-type of democracy. If the western countries do not put democracy or human rights as pre-conditions to China before they deal with it, why should China put such conditionalities to African countries before engaging in any sort of partnership? It is thus safe and resonance to say that most of the criticisms against Chinese engagement in Africa stirred and driven by the western countries are artificial and pointless. They are rather views of competitors who have been outmaneuvered and outclassed. Africans are thus best advised not to attack China on the basis of these self-serving western-inspired contentions.


There is no doubt on the importance and efficacy of democracy, respect of human right and good governance in African countries. These concepts are cornerstone to build sustainable and viable African economies and societies. Africans must, however, embrace democracy on their own without any depending on pressure from outside. For example, Singapore, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia do not exactly fit into the western narrative of democratic states, but they are quite economically wealthy. On the other hand, Malawi, Zambia, and South Africa fairly satisfy the western replica of democratic prescriptions, but the majority of their citizens are struggling with poverty, inequality and unemployment. There are no simple cut and paste solutions.  Countries can be wealthy without following the western democracy type, while embracing such a model cannot be an assurance for economic triumph. African countries must internally, without depending on the goodwill or conditionalities of those key players in global politics, try hard to achieve innovatively both democracy and economic success.


Yet while the other category of critique leveled against the Chinese in Africa directly originate from the Africans themselves. These are genuine concerns coming from African policy makers and business leaders who want a win-win bargain between Africa and China. They speak on behalf of African interests and hold no brief for western nations. Given the history of cooperation and partnership between Africa and China in the struggle against colonialism and imperialism, there are high expectations from the economic ties between them. These high expectations are rooted in a history of solidarity and shared aspirations. So, when criticism is voiced by these concerned Africans, it must be considered as valuable dialogue to tip off what needs to be done to enable the continent to enter into negotiations with China on an equal footing and with a real chance of success.


The Chinese must not be cynical to these genuine African woes and agonies: buying primarily raw materials and exporting its manufactured products; Chinese labor existence in virtually all areas of their interventions with low employment of locals; no skills or technology transfer; extractive trade in raw materials without value addition; unfair local labor practices and cheaper Chinese goods (possibly low quality) undercutting African products. Particularly, many Africans those in the textile and clothing, footwear and furniture sectors have lost their jobs because of what many African entrepreneurs see as unfair competition from cheaper Chinese goods. Chinese imports are undermining Africa’s own manufacturing businesses. In South Africa, for instance, nearly 78,000 jobs are estimated to have been lost in the textiles sector due mainly to the importation of cheaper Chinese substitutes in the years 2001-10. The situation in Ghana, Sierra Leone and other countries in the Sub-Saharan African region is not different. All these perilous and challenging ambiances, the Africans contend, have serious consequences for Africa’s effort to take millions of its people out of poverty and destitution.


In the light of the above setbacks and difficulties confronting African countries arising from the increased commercial relationships with China, what should be the strategic response to the new Chinese policy towards the continent? Primarily, African countries must not hold China or any other foreign power or institution responsible for their problems. We must start to assume blame for our own circumstances, take charge of our economies and produce sustainable solutions to impediments, including these Chinese excesses that confront us today.


Of course, as far as African colonization history is concerned, there are problems whose roots trace back to slavery, colonialism or neo-colonialism. We cannot, nonetheless, use these challenging African past to rationalize incompetence, lack of economic vision, awkward economic planning, poor execution, and now ungainly negotiation ability. The time for excuses has gone far enough. Africans must awaken and act sensibly.


Now, it is prudent to have a different approach when dealing with China on trade and other issues of interest to Africa. Africans must in this regard figure out that Chinese are coming to Africa as shrewd business players who are very vigilant about their national and business interests. They are, in some cases, clever and tougher business dealers and negotiators than western governments. Nonetheless, Africa is not without bargaining leverage. Fairly enough, Africa needs China to open up immense opportunities/prospects for Africans, but China also needs Africa to supply its huge demand for raw materials and natural resources. What is critical is forming equitable relationships where the two sides benefit out of it.


To this end, African countries have to put in place terms of reference and rules of engagement framework with the Chinese. Africans must leverage their strengths, negotiate better, and set out creatively well-built strategic and economic thinking. The continent has natural resources, land, man power and increasingly markets that are and continue to be of strategic interest to the emerging economy of China. On the other hand, China can provide technical and expert assistance to address Africa’s growth challenges. The story of the Asian tigers rise from low income countries to high and developed countries is of course relevant to Africa. Why cannot we use these assets to set the favorable terms for our economies; that will allow the Chinese to make money while effectively developing the continent? This would be an important footstep to engage constructively for ensuring a “win-win” partnership with china.


African policy makers and political leaders must put in place policies, incentives, guidelines and directives which will encourage and oblige the Chinese to set-up processing and manufacturing plants on African soil, ensure employment of Africans, ensure transfer of skills, technology and knowledge to Africa. In terms of quality of Chinese products, quality control, education of the traders, consumers and producers coupled with bilateral quality agreements can assist. All these policy interventions must be effectively and consistently implemented, while comprehensive monitoring and evaluations, leading to corrective actions have to be materialized.

From Africa’s industrialization and development venture perspective, African countries under the present dispensation should position themselves to engage in basic processing of their raw material exports to China in order to add value and derive more benefits in the form of higher income.  We must use and refine our gas and coal reserves. We need to refine, process and add value to our minerals like platinum, gold, diamond, copper, chrome, and iron. Foundational to all this is the building of good quality regional and continental infrastructure. In all these activities Chinese financial resources, technology and human capitals can be put in place in a mutually beneficial situation.


It is worth recalling that Africa as a continent will not develop by selling its commodities. The priority concern for Africa, as for all countries seeking to achieve economic development, must be on growing a huge domestic market for our value-added products. China then must be understood as a competitor in our domestic markets. The Chinese government could be requested to assist by encouraging Chinese companies to forge partnerships with local entrepreneurs in different sectors in order to transfer technology and expertise, stop capital flight, and employ the local work force in the companies. The Chinese companies, for instance, here in Ethiopia mostly engage in manufacturing, agro-processing, industry, infrastructural developments, railway constructions and youth professional training; and with this endeavor, the Ethiopian government enjoys job opportunities, the transfer of latest technology, technology development, knowledge creation and skills. Other Africa countries can take lessons from Ethiopia’s experience in that regard. Meanwhile African countries should engage the Chinese authorities within the context of FOCAC (Forum on China-Africa Cooperation) to find a satisfactory solu­tion to the negative impact on domestic industries of cheap Chinese consumer goods.


In all these efforts, we must come together and work with the Chinese. However, Africa must understand that China, like other industrialised and emerging countries, is in Africa not for benevolence or donations. It is resolutely business and not companionship. These are commercial and business transactions. China is not helping Africa in exchange for nothing. They have vested interests. The following speech of Jacob Zuma at the China-Africa Forum in Beijing in July 2012 has strengthened the above concern by saying that “Africa’s past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies.”

However, the Chinese have also brought advantages to Africa. They have brought more investment options to Africa, beyond the traditional Western rules of engagement which are exemplified by the neoliberal policies of the “Washington Consensus”. Chinese strength in low-cost, large-volume manufacturing has helped some local industries, in particular the mobile telephony sector by driving prices down, and improving access. China has improved Africa’s international status by offering it a powerful alternative market collaborator. Beyond Africa’s massive value proposition to China in terms of commodities, there has also been a resurgence of economic growth in Africa. Seven out of ten of the fastest growing economies, which are experiencing Asia type growth rates of approximately 10 %, in the World for the period 2011 to 2015 are African countries: Tanzania, DRC, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Ghana, Zambia, and Nigeria. These countries bid huge business opportunities for Chinese investors. All these economic booms label Africa’s bargaining strength.


While African countries are encouraged to negotiate better and more effectively as countries, country by country basis is not the best platform of survival under globalization. African regional economic blocs like EAC, ECOWAS, ECCAS, SADC, IGAD, and COMESA are better frameworks to engage with the Chinese. Scale, market size, pooling of resources together and regional consensus improve bargaining power immeasurably. We need regional strategies and policies to effectively respond to China. A collective approach toward China will improve the benefits derived by African countries. African countries must be discouraged from bilateral deals and arrangements with China. For example, the individual population and GDP metrics of Ghana, Zambia, Egypt, Nigeria, and even that of South Africa are not strong enough to bargain alone with China. These countries are bound to be short-changed. In actual fact, South Africa will only be a meaningful member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) if it is there representing SADC and Africa. South Africa’s metrics compared to those of Brazil, Russia, India, and China does not qualify it as a legitimate member of the BRICS. The collective GDPs and populations of SADC, COMESA, and AU will allow South Africa to have more leverage and influence in the BRICS, thus benefiting South Africa, the regions and the Africa continent as a whole.


Beyond these regional economic blocs, continental policies, strategies and terms of reference must be developed within the broader context of continental approach to present an even stronger bargaining framework in the deal with China. There must be an African-driven perspective on China to coordinate effectively their effort at regional and continental levels as well as shape their own national agendas. That will be a definitive bargaining power derived from a holistic and complete African consent rooted in pooling African economic opportunities and markets all together.


In a few words, putting in place a truly win-win partnerships with China, as desired by both parties, is possible. However, African leaders have to think outside the box in order to respond effectively to China’s shifting growth model. It is up to the African decision-makers to collectively adopt a different position by regulating offer to bring the negotiating margin down to the level of African countries. This is crucial since all moves towards the institutionalisation of China-Africa relations through FOCAC that have recently been more  the initiative of  Chinese from which China has taken the liberty to pick and choose its own priorities on the basis of its own self-interest. The AU in this regard has to play a leading role in harmonizing the positions and development agendas among Af­rican countries: now is the perfect time for AU to spearhead negotiations with Chi­na on how African agendas are incorporated into China’s development strategies and pathways in the continent. By doing so, benefitting Africa countries considerably from their strategic partnership with china is reachable and realistic.



Girum Kinfemichael

Senior Lecturer

Institute of Federalism and Legal Studies

Ethiopian Civil Service University

Addis Ababa


He can be contacted at

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